Album Reviews: Naked City

I’m just gonna put this one out there. Not all album reviews have to be of new releases. Sometimes, it’s nice to take a look back, to pay respect to late greats. Murfie staffer, Ben, wanted to review some 1989 avant-garde music. So be it, I say.

~ John Zorn’s Naked City brings together jazz, rock, punk, and country influences into a harrowingly schizophrenic set of music. The 1989 release is the eponymous first album of the outfit, which Zorn brought together to explore the process of jazz composition with a typical rock band instrumentation.

Naked City takes its name from a book of photographs by Weegee (pseudonym of photographer Arthur Fellig), published in 1945, which depicted scenes of crime and emergency in New York City. The cover of the album, a stark image of a man shot in the street, is one of Weegee’s photographs. The book also inspired a film of the same title, and was very influential to film noir directors of the time.

The music of Naked City is similarly gritty, urban, and dark. As one might expect of an album that uses a dead man for a cover, many of the tracks are violent and shocking. Of the 26 tracks on the Naked City album, eight of them are very short – ranging from 11 to 43 seconds in length – and are sudden, frenetic outbursts (described aptly in the title of the track “Igneous Ejaculation”) that are tightly rhythmic, and feature the strangled, shouted vocals of Yamatsuka Eye. The longer tracks are often saltatory, rapidly jumping between styles and tempos. The result is the effect of a television flipping through channels, and highlight the players’ virtuosity. This is apparent in the manic “You Will Be Shot,” which starts with a heavy, driving rock riff, and through spurts of thrashing noise, oscillates to and from a relaxed, piano-led country feel. There are some moments of reprieve, such as the tender ballad “Chinatown,” which emerges from a pool of ambient Frisellian fluid, but for the most part, the album is full of flaming energy.

The band is filled with heavyweights – the well-known Bill Frisell on guitar, renowned experimentalist Fred Frith on bass, Wayne Horvitz on keys, and Joey Baron on drums. Zorn chose players who were accomplished jazz players, but were well-versed in all different styles, so the effect is not of jazzers aping other styles through a jazz lens, but of direct and believable shifts.

The album Naked City is undoubtedly a challenging work, daunting to listeners with faint hearts, but is incredibly important to avant-garde music of the later 20th century. Additionally, it’s very informative about the world of the time, bringing together a cornucopia of cultural influences: most obviously, their rendition of the James Bond theme (complete with gunshots!) and perhaps less apparently, Frisell’s tongue-in-cheek quotation of the three-note NBC motive in the track “Snagglepuss.” The album can be heard as a treasure chest of tropes, with surprises just waiting to be unpacked.
     – Ben Willis